This is Your Brain on Disagreement

The human brain is hard wired to escalate problems, not resolve them.  It is much more “natural” for us to overreact first and think second.  Here’s why:

Our brain is made up of three distinct sections, the Primitive brain, the Mid-brain and the Neocortex.  They each play a distinct role at the beginning of a disagreement. How you manage that initial response can be the difference between a product discussion ending in resolution and a screaming match that ends in a stalemate.  

The Primitive Brain
I call this part of our brain the “Caveman Brain”.  It is responsible for keeping us alive; handling things like heart rate, breathing and digestion.  Our fight or flight response originates here in the Caveman Brain as well.  Unfortunately, it can’t tell the difference between an emotional threat, a psychological threat and a physical threat. To your Caveman Brain it doesn’t matter if you are going to be eaten by a lion or if your ability to do your job is being attacked in the boardroom; your Caveman Brain is flooded with cortisol (stress hormone), your heart rate and breathing increase, your muscles tighten and there is only one question, “Do I fight or do I run?

The Mid-Brain
This single question is passed on to the Mid-brain or “Emotional Brain”.  Here our feelings about a situation are added.  Not the words, this part of our brain doesn’t have access to language, just the feelings.  When the Caveman Brain sends the message, “We are under attack! Do we fight or do we run?!?!” the Emotional Brain responds instantly adding the feeling “FEAR!”  This information is then sent on to the Neocortex.  
The Neocortex
The Neocortex is the “Logical Brain”.  It is what makes us different from other animals.  We can process language, weigh options and respond with thoughtful ideas and options about the best course of action.  In short, it is the part of our brain we want to be engaged during a disagreement but not when we are running from a hungry lion.  

The Problem
Our Caveman Brain and our Emotional Brain don’t know that engaging in a disagreement is not as life threatening as running from a lion. When our Logical Brain is bombarded with fear neurochemicals and the message “We are under attack!” it realizes we are not being chased by a lion and translates all of it into “I am angry!” Have you ever said something and then immediately regretted it? How about thought of the perfect thing to say twenty minutes after the discussion was over? That is what happens when our Caveman Brain and Emotional Brain hijack our Logical Brain.  We don’t think, we just respond.

How to Overcome an Attempted Hijacking
There is no way you can stop the neurochemicals that are attempting to hijack your ability to think logically.  But you can manage them.  It just takes a little practice.  

  • It is critically important that you know what your fight or flight reaction feels like. Do you get hot? Can you feel your heart pound or your shoulders tense?  Maybe your chest tightens or your stomach clinches.  Think about whatever it feels like to you. When was the last time you felt it? How did you respond?
  • The next time it happens, notice how it feels in the moment.  It will probably take you a few tries to catch it happening. Many of my clients report “It happened and I didn’t realize it until after the moment was over.”  That’s okay and normal. You will get to the point that you recognize your fight or flight response as it is happening. That is the nanosecond when you have a chance to change the outcome.
  • Breathe. Don’t respond right away. Give your body a chance to realize you are not being chased by a hungry lion.  You are in a boardroom with well fed people. Your life is not in jeopardy. The fight or flight chemicals will recede.  At that point you will be able to make a logical choice.  Is this really a conversation you want to engage in now or are you going to ask that it be tabled and come back to it after you have had a chance to think about it? Only your Logical Brain knows the answer.

May all your disagreements be productive and as always, I wish you the MOST from your potential!

Doc Robyn

Dr. Robyn Odegaard (aka “Doc Robyn”) is internationally known conflict resolution expert, motivational speaker, executive coach and corporate trainer.  As CEO of Champion Performance Development, she works with executives, professionals, athletes, and coaches to help them achieve excellence in all aspects of life through active leadership, powerful teamwork, effective communication, Productive Conflict™ and professional disagreement skills.  She is the founder of the Stop The Drama! Campaign and author of the books Stop The Drama! The Ultimate Guide to Female Teams and The Ultimate Guide to Handling Every Disagreement Every Time.  To work with her one-on-one, have her present to your team, request a custom workshop or invite her to speak at your event, email her at or call 302-307-3091.

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